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Dozens Missing From Diving Boat That Caught Fire Off California


Hours before dawn on this holiday morning, a charter boat was on the waters off the coast of California. It was a dive boat taking people out for a plunge in the ocean. Dozens of people are believed to have been on board, and the boat was near Santa Cruz Island, up the coast from Los Angeles, when it caught fire. NPR's Kirk Siegler is in Ventura County, Calif. He is following this story. Kirk, good morning.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Can you talk us through what is known? What happened when?

SIEGLER: Well, details are still quite sparse. But we know, according to the Coast Guard, that authorities responded to a boat fire, as you say, early this morning, about 3:30 this morning, Pacific time; reports of at least 30 people in distress. It was a 75-foot boat off of Santa Cruz Island. It was a commercial diving trip. There are reports that they were out there for a couple of days. Santa Cruz Island is in the Channel Islands National Park. We also know that several crew members were rescued, up to five, according to the Coast Guard. But many of the passengers were believed to be below the deck, and there are dozens missing, we are understanding. And it's still an active rescue operation, but certainly, a lot of details still yet to be known.

INSKEEP: And we should note, we heard on this program from the Ventura County Fire Department about an hour ago that the vessel has sunk. Of course, there were photos released earlier today that showed it almost entirely engulfed in flames, and whatever is left of that boat has gone down. It's really striking to me, Kirk Siegler, to hear you say that five crew members were rescued and that many other people may have been trapped below decks. It's one of the standards of the sea, of the ocean - crew members, of course, are the ones who are most capable of surviving, but their job is to be responsible for the passengers. For them to have been unable to get people up on deck even suggests a very fast-moving fire.

SIEGLER: Mmm hmm. And as you said, the images that we have so far just show just an incredible fire out there, with the boat eventually sinking and a very dangerous situation. I'm standing here at the Coast Guard station outside the locked gate, and there are family members who are coming in looking for information. In fact, one is - looks like he's just come in but speaking to reporters right now - as you can imagine, very concerned. I think there will be a lot of questions - of course, yet to be answered - about the fact that the crew was taken off the boat but not sure what's happening with the rest of the passengers and those on this apparent commercial diving operation.

INSKEEP: And I guess the next question, the most immediate question, is where are the remaining people? Did anybody else survive? Is anybody else in the water? I would presume there must be fire boats and other kinds of vessels out looking for people now.

SIEGLER: Yes. And this is - you know, I'm on the coast here in Ventura, Calif., and the Channel Islands are about 20 miles off the coast, so you can imagine also that information coming in is a little bit tricky. From where I am, at this point, you know, it's hard to tell. The authorities haven't even actually officially briefed the media yet, I think because it happened so early in the morning, and it's still an active rescue operation or they - you know, there are also reports of potential casualties. We have not confirmed those yet. But I imagine it's an all-hands-on-deck situation out there, and people are just scrambling to rescue people and look for any survivors. At this point, we just don't have a lot of information.

INSKEEP: A useful reminder - and this is in so many stories - the initial facts may change, and we'll bear that in mind. NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thanks so much.

SIEGLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.